Only a relative handful of players in Pittsburgh Steelers history have put up more sacks in a single season than outside linebacker Alex Highsmith managed in 2022. Though it took a strong effort in the finale, he ended the year with 14.5 sacks, short only of marks set by T.J. Watt, James Harrison, and Mike Merriweather.
Just in time, too, because he is entering the final year of his rookie contract, which means it’s time to talk contract extension. But is Highsmith the player he showed last season? He had just eight sacks in his first two seasons combined. Pass-rush coach Chuck Smith, who works with him, believes this is just the culmination of his journey.
“The thing about Highsmith is he always had that in him”, he recently told Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “He was in college, and he used certain moves that were NFL-ready. Now he’s putting it all together. But people have to recognize even the year before, the dude was rushing and making plays. He might have missed some sacks, but he showed incredible skill. So I think what happened this year was a progression from a year ago”.
While he may be more than a little partial in this matter as somebody speaking about his own client, there is a lot of truth in what he says about Highsmith. In spite of the fact that he played in a new college program, arguably out of position for much of that time, he came into the NFL with a surprising level of understanding of how to play the position.
And by that I mean, for example, having a pass-rush plan, understanding the concept of the long game, setting up moves and how they interact with one another. Putting together an arsenal and knowing how and when to use them; that’s generally something players learn over time in the NFL. That combined with his natural athletic abilities are reflected in what we see now.
“He’s really explosive”, Smith said. “He has great bend, and he has a great understanding of the moves he likes to use. He continues to utilize his cross chop, his spin and his ghost. Those are the three primary rushes that he’s mastered”.
As Alex Kozora has recently pointed out, opponents have begun getting wise to his spin move and have worked to counter it. Based on his history up to this point, I would trust that Highsmith is going to get into the lab this offseason—with Smith—to figure out how to counter that counter.